Our Views: The direction of our Compass

The founder of Microsoft has taken to tilting at philantrophic windmills, from malaria in Africa to public education in America. But if Bill Gates has an image as a Knight of Nerds, or Duke of Data, his message on a key policy problem in the latter sector is focused on the worker bees: teachers, and their roles as inspirers of the next generation in our classrooms.

Gates’ recent column in The Washington Post is relevant to Louisiana this year, as teachers begin to wrestle in earnest with a tough new evaluation system. Gates warned about “hastily contrived, unproven measures” for what constitutes success in a classroom.

His concern is that there could be a backlash against standardized tests and using student test scores as the primary basis for evaluations. “I’m all for accountability, but I understand teachers’ concerns and frustrations,” Gates said.

We hope Gates’ words are taken into account with the new “Compass” evaluation system in Louisiana. It was mandated by the Legislature in 2010 and extensive consultation about the system ensured, usually with a great deal of input from teachers.

The new state superintendent, John White, and the state education board have changed parts of the evaluation system. But the bottom line is it is still based — at 50 percent, with ties going to the data — on student test results.

That is why White recently urged teachers to pay attention to another of their new data-input chores, making sure that the class roster their evaluation is based on is correct. Teachers will be judged on their students’ growth in performance.

The other half of the formula: classroom evaluation by principals and others. This is more traditional, but the 2010 law and the state Department of Education hope that it will be more intensive than in the past. Thus, as Gates suggested in the Post, teachers who need professional development can get it.

This is new stuff, and it is beyond denial that some teachers haven’t liked it, and some veteran teachers — even those who rated “highly qualified” in the pilot programs of the evaluation system — opted to retire or take other jobs just now.

The Council for a Better Louisiana supported the new evaluation system, but agrees that there have been “bumps in the road” getting it rolled out.

“That was always to be expected and something we warned about soon after the legislation passed,” CABL noted. “But problems are made to be solved and first-year glitches are not evidence that new policies have failed.”

Still, we believe that the morale and expectations for fair treatment of the teacher corps are part of the responsibilities of the state’s education leaders.

As Gates observed, professional support and strong morale in the teaching corps is the road to success, not simply the 2010 law’s one-dimensional goal of pushing “ineffective” teachers out of the classroom.

“States, districts and the U.S. Education Department would do well to encourage the right balance,” Gates said. That balance, between a rigorous mathematical evaluation of test scores and the support teachers need to succeed, is not going to be achieved in such a large new system at once. Tweaking and adjustments ought to be considered by the state and by districts.

Like Gates, we think that a thoughtful approach to teacher evaluation must remain on the agenda of policy makers. It’s not a matter of one law or any number of pilot projects, and certainly not any one data set.

And of course it’s easy for the state to command districts to provide the level of professional development that is needed, making the heavy lifting a local responsibility while the state takes credit for rigorous evaluation. Resources for teachers aren’t cheap.

If Compass is to be a guillotine instead of a professional ladder, the backlash against it will be intense and create political problems for the entire system of accountability that the Legislature sought with the new law.